They came to Monongah, West Virginia, from some of the poorest regions of Italy-- Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania--to work the coal mines. Like the millions of Italians who migrated to “L’america” in search of a brighter future, most had no idea of the challenges they would face. The promise of a financed voyage and a secure job was an incentive that few could resist. But none, one suspects, could have imagined that they would end up working in conditions as inhumane as in those in the mines of Monongah. Yet, they left their homes in Frosolone, Roccamandolfi, Duronia, San Giovanni in Fiore, Castrovillari, Canistro, and dozens of other Italian towns and came in droves to Monongah.
One hundred years ago, on December 6, 1907, an explosion ripped through the Monongah mines, shaking the earth as far as eight miles away, and killing, according to contemporaneous official records, 362 miners. It was, and remains, the worst mining disaster in American history. Officially, 171 Italians died that day. But those figures may underestimate the number of miners working that day; often young boys who assisted their fathers were not always “officially” counted. According to one newspaper story, it is possible that an estimated 956 lives were lost in the explosion.
The tragedy of Monongah has remained largely buried for almost 100 years. Even Jerry Mangione’s classic book about the Italian migration to America, La storia, does not mention the incident. An Internet search turns up very little information. That such an historic tragedy remains hidden from the public after all these years is a wake-up call for all of us who treasure our ethnicity. It is only thanks to academics, such as Prof. Joseph Tropea, former Chair of the Sociology Department at the George Washington University, who have conducted field research on the Monongah disaster, that the truth is finally emerging.
Prof. Joseph D’Andrea, a former honorary Italian consul in Pittsburgh, has also been actively working to publicize the Monongah tragedy. Both scholars will participate at a seminar to be held at Holy Rosary’s Casa Italiana hall on December 2, 2007. One hopes that Italian-American organizations across the country will also take an interest in commemorating the 100th anniversary of this mining disaster, and support the scholars who seek to research a tragedy that has been buried for too long.
*Francesco Isgro is an attorney in Washington, D.C. who specializes in immigration law.